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Technical college or university?

ITKnowledge Exchange member "neoCentric" had a question about the differences between technical schools and universities. Fellow techies jumped in on the conversation. Here is a portion of the conversation. Read the whole thread.

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ITKnowledge Exchange member "neoCentric" asked:
Would it be more beneficial to attend a technical college or university? I want the best education for today's market, but also want the education for later when, let's say, I go up for a CIO candidacy. I don't know the "ins and outs" of technical colleges, so could someone give me some insight and advice on all of this?

"BOBKBERG" responded:
If it is your intention to aim for executive ranks (you mentioned you would eventually like to be a CIO), then you need to go to a university.

I'm not knocking technical colleges, but technical is ALL they teach. If you want to get into management, you're going to have to know applied math, budgeting, writing (proposals, reviews, etc.). You'll learn a lot of stuff that seems unrelated to your direct interest, but the higher you go in management, the more that "unrelated" stuff is going to count for -- although it's very hard to quantify what will or won't be useful.

If you just want to be a techie, you can go either route. I'm a university graduate, but I don't know that you'd be able to tell that by what I do for a living, since I'm still basically a techie. But since you've specified upper management, don't hobble yourself.

"VENPHIL" responded:
I agree with those recommending a university education. I have a liberal arts education, and it has served me well. Before I retired I had my own computer software consulting firm. I worked in a variety of fields, including automated warehouse ordering/stocking/shipping, combustion turbine performance analysis, psychological testing report generation, telephone network alarm monitoring, credit card transaction transfer, smart telephone applications and research library online cataloging. All this with a four-year degree.

Whatever technical things you learn (in a university or technical school) will be obsolete within two years (at most) of completing your education. Hiring officials know this and look for someone who can learn quickly. A university degree is indicative of this skill -- learning how to learn. As a manager you will need to know how to select a group of people who work together well, both technically and personally. You won't get this expertise at a technical school, but might at a university (if you take some basic psychology courses).

BUT...the important thing is that you do what you really want to do. If attending a university is going to be an unpleasant chore for you, don't do it -- you'd be likely to fail.

Good luck.

"TSMITTY" responded:
The overwhelming recommendation here seems to lead you towards a four-year degree. My advice is no different. I'd like to provide you with two bits of additional information, however:

  1. Devry and other technical schools might not be a viable option. I have a friend who's an English professor at one such campus, and she swears the curriculum is a balanced one. Even so, most hiring managers probably don't know this and are hence biased against the Devrys of the world (over other well-known four-year universities, that is).

     

  2. If you wish to eventually enter the executive ranks of corporate IT management, you will likely need an MBA.You can't get in to graduate school without that four-year undergraduate degree.

The BA/BS degree is a platform providing you many career and educational options, where technical training will yield immediate opportunities -- but little for the long-haul. Remember that whatever hard skills you learn in school will be of little use in a few short years. If IT is your industry of choice for your career, then you're going to be learning for the rest of your life. If you can learn to solve problems and learn to learn, then you've gained two of the most necessary and immutable skills in IT. The hard skills can be learned via certification tracks and the like.

Just to give myself an air of credibility -- I am the director of information systems for a $3.5 billion investment firm. I've done a good share of hiring over the years from a range of educational backgrounds. Your book-smart MCSE who couldn't solve problems or communicate never lasted long with me. A four-year degree tells me that the candidate can probably write, communicate verbally, solve problems, set and meet goals, and learn. If the skills are there -- and a good interview will reveal whether they are -- then we can look to see if the candidate is a good "fit." Meanwhile, the candidate without the degree probably doesn't even get the interview. These days, there are so many qualified candidates for any given position, a line must be drawn in the sand somewhere. College education is a good place to draw that line, especially for managers.

Best of luck...

"PETROLEUMMAN" responded:
The best educational path for you is really going to depend on you. What are your short- and long-term goals? What is your comfort level with taking classes? How much time (and money) do you have budgeted for education?

If your long-term goal is upper management, then by far an accredited university will have the best programs and carry the most weight in today's job market. The down side is that a university requires a larger commitment of time and money, as you will be required to take several non-IT related courses (English, social sciences, etc.), which are requirements of a degree.

If your goal is a fast path into the job market, then technical schools -- especially those that offer the certification paths -- are a good choice.

Since the IT world changes so rapidly, it's not a bad idea to set both short- and long-term goals for yourself, meaning maybe take a shorter certification path so that you can become marketable in IT, then once you have a foot in the door and are employed in the field, then work toward your university degree. This way not only can you pace yourself to get the most out of your classes, but, by working, you're gaining vital on-the-job experience, which in my opinion, is by far the best education.

As for schools, I think certain technical schools have great reputations, and degrees from either are worth having. As for universities, there are many options out there that all seem to have good IT degree programs as well as a variety of methods to complete the course work, ranging from the traditional classroom to the more modern online studies.

As long as you have a plan and are committed, you should do just fine!

"ETITTEL" responded:
Frankly, if you're heading for upper management (and CIO is on that list), even a four-year degree won't be enough. You'll need some graduate education on top of a bachelor's, and, given your interests, both a master's in a technical field (like CS, MIS, IT, etc.) and an MBA wouldn't be out of the question.

Advancing to the top levels of management usually takes most people -- even fast-trackers -- 10-15 years to achieve. I say this because you have time to take the interim steps necessary to move yourself in that direction. But I believe strongly you should not only go to the best university you can afford for undergraduate education, but also plan on pursuing graduate education at the best institution you can afford.

If you're lucky, you'll get on with employers who'll grant tuition support to help you get more educated as you advance up the career ladder. But even if that's not the case, it's still worthwhile pursuing multiple degrees because they really do open a lot of doors.

How do I know this? Because I attended an Ivy League school. I now recognize, more than 30 years after graduating, that it got me a lot of opportunities I never would have had otherwise. And even though my MA is in anthropology, it got me hired in the 1980s at Schlumberger Research, where an MA is required to get a job interview.

It really DOES make a difference, and I can attest to that not only from observing and advising people in IT, but also from my own personal experience.

HTH and good luck with your career planning and development.

"ITDEFPAT1" responded:
I've done them all, and I've been fairly successful for nearly 15 years in IT. An accredited university or college is the best starting place if advancement and longevity in field is your goal.

The benefit of a tech institution is speed of entry. They can get you into the field in a year or two. A college or university can be quite longer and, even with a degree, might not get you where you want to be. To top off a tech program, get a certification. CompTIA has several street-level certs (A+, Net+, Security+, etc.) that probably go a long way for entry into the field. I hesitate to call them entry-level certs.

When money is no object (either due to your income or to your employer), go for the "core" certs like MCSE, MCSA, CCNA, RHCE and so on. Use them to demonstrate what you know. IMHO, certs should be a proof of knowledge and experience. The elite certs like CISSP, CCIE, CISM, CISA and so on are very specialized and require specific proof of experience and knowledge as well as minimum time in those roles. These are (some of) the certs to lead with.

Also with all schools, check to see what their placement outcomes are like -- where their graduates go, do and make.

 


 


This was first published in July 2005

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